on Jul 28, 2008
The Witcher is a role-playing game, as opposed to an RPG. While theoretically the same thing, the acronym “RPG” has mutated to encompass games in which you control a soulless empty shell of an avatar with no personality or history who levels up as the story goes on around him. So I’m calling The Witcher a role-playing game instead of using the slippery acronym to highlight the fact that you play a role here. Ergo, you pretend to be someone else. The problem is that this persona is set in stone before you even install the game. At the onset you are handed an immutable character, created by the designers, who then give you almost no freedom to deviate from their vision.
|Hello ladies. Meet Geralt, the famous Witcher and even more famous sex machine. You know you want him. Kiss his leathery pockmarked face and run your fingers through his mop of stringy grey hair. He’s just like Brad Pitt, except without the good looks, wealth, talent, or personal hygiene.|
As the game progresses, Geralt will meet many buxom young ladies in distress who will offer themselves to him if he helps them out of their (sometimes trivial) predicament. Taking them up on the offer results in a PG-13 sex scene, followed by Geralt being awarded a rated R playing card with a picture of his latest conquest. The goal here seems to be to collect them all, which (according to the wiki) is a list of twenty women. The choice is always binary: Sex or no sex. You can’t opt for money or information instead. You certainly can’t form a relationship, much less marriage, with any of these ladies. In fact, if you talk to them later they have nothing to say about your one-time tryst. Even if you decline the frequent and inexplicable offers for sex, the people you meet often refer to your past exploits, so you can’t really change that aspect of Geralt. If you don’t like it, the best you can do is choose not to behave that way during the game. From a roleplaying perspective, the whole “collectable sex card” business makes it feel less like playing a lecherous old man and more like just being one.
Does Geralt sound like someone you want to play? A lot of your enjoyment of the game hinges on your answer to this question. Some might like it, in a “playing-the-flawed-good-guy” sort of way. Heroes with faults are usually more interesting than their more idealized counterparts. Maybe his ugliness or awfulness will give the game a certain novelty for you. There are lots of tabletop gamers who play the horribly scarred, brooding, but inexplicably promiscuous adventurer who collects sexual conquests the way other players collect notoriety or magic items. He’s certainly a break from the square jaw goody-goody medieval superman knockoffs that have been foisted on us over the years. I would give the game full points for allowing you to inhabit this archetype, if not for the fact that this is the only character you can play.
For me, inhabiting the role of Geralt was about as much fun as shuffling around the house in Hugh Heffner’s nasty old bathrobe, which forever stinks of booze, smoke, Ben Gay, and Old Spice. As Geralt I was more interested in finding someplace to take a bath and get a haircut than I was at bedding all the dirty peasant women I met.
On top of the personality railroading you undergo as Geralt, the character is suffering from an unsurprising and completely needless case of amnesia. The amnesiac videogame hero was played out back when we were still running 2D sprites through mazes, but at least in those titles of yesteryear it served as an underlying explanation as to why the main character was such a blank slate. But here the main character isn’t a blank slate. He’s actually a very clearly defined character and the whole amnesia business just adds a bunch of unwelcome clutter and friction to the dialog as Geralt stops and explains his condition to everyone that he meets. The amnesia business could be removed entirely with a little re-writing of the dialog, or by simply having Geralt explore someplace he’s never visited before. The amnesia doesn’t add a sense of mystery or tension. I never once worried that anyone was trying to take advantage of my condition. (Which would have been unfair anyway, since the game never gives the player the option to try and hide Geralt’s condition. He blabs it to everyone he meets, which rubs me the wrong way for an adventurer making his way in a hostile and uncertain world.) From a storytelling perspective, I don’t see any reason for the memory loss outside of the fact that all the other games do it.
For me, a roleplaying game with a fixed character is like a version of Gran Turismo with the Nissan Skyline as the only car you can drive, or a version of Madden that only lets you play as the Cowboys. That’s fine if that’s the choice you were going to make anyway, but it puts the game in a straightjacket for everyone else.
Before you go running off to spew invective at me in the comments and tell me how great this game is let me explain that I am not “reviewing” the game in a thumbs up / down sort of way. This post is one of (probably) many that will talk about various aspects of the game, what worked, what didn’t, and will (inevitably) have a little armchair game design of how I would have done things if anyone had been foolish enough to put me in charge.
Shamus Young is an old-school OpenGL programmer, author, and composer. He runs this site and if anything is broken you should probably blame him.